Romm vs. Expert Consensus on Energy Technology

The Center for American Progress's Joe Romm claims we don't need technology breakthroughs -- defined as disruptive or non-incremental improvements in technology performance and price -- to stabilize emissions. Unfortunately for Romm, energy experts do not share his view.

Here's Jae Edmonds of the University of Maryland:

Fundamental changes in the world's expanding energy system are required to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Incremental improvements in technology will help, but will not by themselves lead to stabilization" (Edmonds et al. 2007: 11) (my emphasis)

Not a lot of ambiguity there. Is Edmonds alone? He's not. We reviewed over two dozen expert analyses in a white paper, "The Investment Consensus,".

Here's a few other nuggets.

Massive technology innovation is required for stabilization:

Efforts to mitigate global climate change will require technological innovations deployed on a massive scale... [S]ubstantial reductions in U.S. CO2emissions would require that the United States replace or retrofit hundreds of electric power plants and tens of millions of vehicles. In addition, appliances, furnaces, building systems, and factory equipment numbering in the hundreds of millions might also need to be modified or replaced. Technological change on this scale cannot happen overnight. Many of the technologies needed do not yet exist commercially or are too costly (Alic et al.. 2003: 5)

What is one of the main obstacles to innovation? Lack of public investment:

Probably the most significant barrier to ETI [Energy Technology Innovation] is inadequacy of funds, especially for R&D, in relation to the challenges that are faced by energy system (Sims Gallagher et al. 2006: 221-222).

Public investment is key to stimulating private sector investments:

At present, we have insufficient economically competitive substitutes for high carbon emitting technologies. The development of low- to zero-emitting alternatives will require both a sustained commitment on the part of the public sector upstream in the R&D chain and incentives for the private sector to bring the necessary technologies to the marketplace (Richels et al.. 2007).

Romm insists that major government investments weren't required for past innovations. Energy experts disagree:

Past investments in [Energy Technology Innovation], public and private, led to large improvements over the course of the twentieth century in the performance of specific energy technologies, energy sectors, and the whole energy systems of nations and the world, as measured in increased technical efficiency, increased reliability, and decreased cost and environmental impact per unit of energy output and per unit of economic product (Sims Gallagher et al. 2006: 227).

The International Energy Agency says massive investment in R&D and deployment is needed, even for technologies close to commercialization:

Many of the technologies needed are already available or close to commercialization. But it will require substantial effort and investment by both the public and private sectors for them to be adopted by the market. Pathways need to be opened up to enable these technologies to deliver their full potential. Urgent action is needed to stimulate R&D, to demonstrate and deploy promising technologies, and to provide clear and predictable incentives for low carbon options and diverse energy sources (Mandil/IEA 2006: 3)

Romm points to wind as an example of why we don't need technological breakthroughs. But, in fact, there was a major technological breakthrough in blade technology that resulted major improvements in performance and price.

How did this wind blade breakthrough happen? The Danish government made large investments to deploy the new turbines off-shore. Same thing was true with Brazil's biofuels program (whether or not you like its biofuels is beside the point - it took sustained federal investment to scale them up):

Development of the Danish wind and Brazilian biofuels industries each required sustained government support over decades. The Danish subsidies totaled $1.3bn, and Danish wind companies now earn more than that each year (Carbon Trust, 2003). At current oil prices, Brazil may soon similarly recoup its investment in biofuel technology" (Grubb 2004: 26 - 27)

It was only after reading dozens of expert analyses that we came to the view that non-incremental improvements in price and performance are needed to stabilize emissions. Does that mean we should only do R&D and wait for deployment and procurement? Of course not. Rather, we need to invest in deployment and procurement to achieve the innovations we want. We have always been clear about the importance of deployment for innovation. It's Romm's who has consistently mischaracterized our position as support for R&D alone.

Romm claims that the solar thermal industry doesn't need major investments. My view is that the solar industry will make plenty of money for itself without major public investments. But without massive investment, solar won't constitute a Princeton emission "wedge," which requires a 700-fold increase in solar.

Romm wants his readers to believe that regulation, regulation, and regulation are more important than investment. Energy experts come to the opposite conclusion:

Industry funded R&D focuses on the domain of existing expertise and on improvements that can be leveraged in the short term (Anderson and Bird, 1992). This suggests that public funding will be the main driver for longer-term developments in new technology and production processes for existing renewables, exploration of untried renewable technologies, energy system integration, superconductivity, and non-hydro storage technologies. The innovation process is not linear but entails various feedback loops between market experience and research activities. This suggests that cost and efficiency improvements in existing renewable technologies (Luther, 2004) require a parallel increase in strategic deployment efforts and public research funding (Neuhoff 2005: 22) (My emphasis).

Can global warming be regulated away? A group of 14 climate and energy experts, including Hoffert, Caldeira, and Wigley, concluded that it cannot be:

Combating global warming by radical restructuring of the global energy system could be the technology challenge of the century. We have identified a portfolio of promising technologies here--some radical departures from our present fossil fuel system. Many concepts will fail, and staying the course will require leadership. Stabilizing climate is not easy. At the very least, it requires political will, targeted research and development, and international cooperation. Most of all, it requires the recognition that, although regulation can play a role, the fossil fuel greenhouse effect is an energy problem that cannot be simply regulated away (Hoffert et al. 2002: 986)